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Earliest science in Europe

Drawing of a Neanderthal stone awl

A Neanderthal stone awl – early European inventions

For a long time, northern Europe was a scientific backwater: new ideas came from other places to northern Europe, and not the other way around. The earliest people came to northern Europe probably about a million years ago. These were not modern people, but earlier Neanderthals.

Stone tools
First people in Europe
All our Northern Europe articles

From Africa, they brought with them the knowledge of how to make Acheulean stone tools, and the use of fire. These early people kept on making Acheulean stone tools until about 200,000 years ago, when they began to make more efficient Mousterian tools instead. They probably also made baskets and straw mats.

History of baskets
What is straw?

Bows and arrows, leather

When the earliest modern humans left Africa and walked to Europe, they arrived about 50,000 BC, bringing with them newer African scientific advances like tame dogs and leather clothing and painting, bows and arrows and fishing. Soon they were spinning rope and cords.

Bows and arrows
Leather clothing

Horses and wagons, weaving, bronze

Yamnaya people migrating to Germany from Central Asia about 2000 BC brought with them many more new inventions, like horses and wagonsweaving, and the composite bow that you could use while you were riding your horse. They also brought domesticated pigs and cattle with them, and the use of bronze.

Where do horses come from?
Invention of the wheel
What is bronze?
History of weaving

Reproduction of a press from Gutenberg's time

Reproduction of a press from Gutenberg’s time: Early European inventions

Bellows, blown glass, iron tools

With the rise of the Roman Empire, the Romans (also Indo-Europeans) began to exchange ideas with their new subjects in West Asia and Egypt, and brought back new things to trade with the Germans to their north.

Invention of the bellows
Glass and glass-making
How do you make iron?

Ship with a lateen sail Kelenderis Mosaic (400s AD, Turkey)

Ship with a lateen sail Kelenderis Mosaic (400s AD, Turkey) – Early European inventions

They brought wine, and wheel-made pottery, and iron tools. Under Roman rule, Cologne in northern Germany became a center of the new industry of glass-blowing. Roman ship-builders invented the lateen sail.

Roman ships and sailing

Harrows, paper, printing

But it was not until after the fall of the Roman Empire, in the Middle Ages, that northern European scientists really began to make their own original contributions to the world. Chimneys helped to move smoke out of houses. Somebody invented the harrow, which allowed farmers to plow and plant heavier soils more efficiently. New types of ships allowed more efficient sailing.

Who invented paper?
Where does printing come from?
Medieval ships and sailing

The harrow encouraged a lot of people to move to northern Europe, and made Europeans richer, so they could educate and support more scientists. Thanks to the communications encouraged by the huge Mongol Empire, northern European scientists learned about paper, printing, and distillation in China and the Islamic Empire. Gunpowder and cannon also reached Europe from China, and the magnetic compass.

History of gunpowder
How does a compass work?

People in Germany were able to use these new ideas to invent fizzy beer, brandy, and eventually Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type.

Learn by doing: carve a poem into a linoleum block and use it to print copies
More about the printing press

Bibliography and further reading about northern European science

More about Central Asian Science
More about Roman Science home